A Good God in Bad Times?

In light of the tragic massacre of 26 people at the Sandy Hook

Night (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Elementary School in Connecticut , some people are going to gravitate toward God, seeking shelter from their pain…but some are going to turn away, maybe not forever, but for a while.

We have a need to have God “behave,” and protect us from bad things, especially when we think we are good people. The question of theodicy – i.e., is God all good and all-powerful? If God is all-powerful, and this happened, then is God NOT all good? Or…if God is all good and this happened…then is God NOT all-powerful?

When tragic and senseless things like this happen, people become confused about God. In general, they are not open to hearing about the need to forgive, or to show mercy…No, their pain, our pain as vulnerable human beings kicks in, and we get angry at God and wonder where God was when the disruption of our peace and stability occurred.

Elie Wiesel wrote, in Night, that as he was suffering in a concentration camp, he felt this anger. In one part of the book he wrote that summer was coming to an end and the Jewish year was almost over…people were suffering and for what? Because a maniac was in control and had no sense of shame or morals or compassion. Where was God? Why was God allowing this to happen? Wiesel wrote, “What are You, my God? How do you compare to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean. Master of the Universe, in the face of all this cowardice, this decay, and this misery? Why do you go on troubling these poor people‘s wounded minds, their ailing bodies?” (p. 66)

He and the other inmates were uttering prayers. “Blessed be God’s name?” Wiesel remembers asking. “Why, but why would I bless Him? Every fiber in me rebelled. Because he caused thousands of children to burn in His mass graves? ” He goes on, asking why anyone would bless this God. His pain, his agony, is palpable.

It is in times like these that we often cannot find God, but it isn’t because God is not with  us. We don’t really look for God, and if we found God, we are not sure of what we would say.  Like Wiesel, we would wonder why we should bless this deity who is either not all-powerful or all good. Tragedies like this shake us to our foundations, and it takes us a few minutes to get back to our center.

These parents of the slain children are in mortal agony…there are no words to describe their pain. The spouses of the slain women are likewise in torment. How does one deal with the fact that he or she sent a child to school, only to have that child dead hours later? How does one reconcile the goodness of God with the fact that such a horrible thing happened to totally innocent people?

What I have learned is that we have to let ourselves go through the process of finding God in dark places. There is no quick and easy fix. We cannot take a pill and feel spiritually and/or emotionally OK. God comes to us…or we receive God…in fits and starts. God allows us to turn away over and over as we writhe in pain…and God receives us when we turn back to Him/Her. Emotional and spiritual pain, both of which is part of the emotion called grief, is like a spiritual virus that must run its course. It cannot be rushed. God allows us to rebel, to scream, to shake our heads in disbelief…and God waits for the pain to run its course, after which God hopes we will have a new awareness and appreciation for the kind of omnipresence that is God and that is with us, even when we cannot feel it.

That is a fact, but does not erase our rage or confusion or both about “what” God is, as Wiesel asks, when horrible things happen.  God knows that we have a choice: to sit in our pain and be emulsified by it, or to get up, inch by painful inch, to serve God in spite of the loss and pain we have endured. God does not erase the pain we suffer; Jacob wrestled with God in his pain and wound up with a limp. If we are lucky, we will wrestle with God during our most acute pain, and walk away…albeit with a limp. The limp is the sign that we decided to hold onto God even when we were disgusted or angry or confused or all of the above, because we realized that in spite of our pain, in the end, God was the best answer to recovery and relief from that pain.

I wish that troubled man had not shot and killed all those children; I wish he had not shot the principal and school psychologist and teacher at that school. I wish he had been able to go to God for his tormented soul, or to a doctor if he needed psychiatric help…and yes, I wish God had lent a divine hand and stopped every one of those bullets. But that’ didn’t happen, and the result of that young man’s actions is a slew of people in deep pain. I hope they turn to God, even if that turning is, at this point, sporadic…because in the end, God is the best answer to the questions and the pain that they have.

A candid observation …

On Pastors Losing Faith

I read with interest a story today in The Huffington Post about pastors who lose their faith and become atheists.

It was intriguing, but not surprising.

The article (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/01/clergy-lost-faith-family-jobs_n_1465953.html#es_share_ended)  featured a Methodist pastor, Rev. Teresa MacBain, who “came out” as an atheist at an event sponsored by The Clergy Project, which exists for pastors who, like MacBain, have lost their faith. The Clergy Project is an online support group, and pastors, apparently go to the site and express their thoughts and issues as concerns their faith – or lack thereof.

When these pastors “come out,” the article said, they suffer; members of their congregation experience a range of emotion, from anger to a sense of having been betrayed. Few, it seems, are able to sympathize with their former spiritual leaders.

The article made me wonder if part of the reason pastors (and others) lose faith is because we do not understand it. We thrive on words from the Christian gospels, which say, “Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you.” We have been taught, I am afraid, to interpret that phrase in very human, materialistic terms, when what it actually pertains to is a person asking for, looking for and knocking on the door of – God. If we ask for God, look for God and knock on the door of our own doubts and concerns, we will find God.

We haven’t been taught that, however, and so when we ask for things – like, for example, that a beloved child or spouse not die and he or she dies anyway – we become disillusioned. We read about the miracles which seemingly happened in seconds in the Bible, and when we don’t see that in our own lives, we begin to doubt.  Less than moral and ethical televangelists realize that people are struggling on this issue, and perform instantaneous miracles on television – feeding into our spirits and beliefs which are theologically wrong – and they make an economic killing.

We pastors see so much that bothers us: bad things happening to really good people; children dying too young; people succumbing to illness, physical and/or emotional, and despite our best prayers, no good seems to come to the suffering.

Because we have a sense that God exists to do our bidding, we become angry and disenchanted. We begin to believe that God is not good, nor is God fair. The book of Job resonates with us, his questions become ours, and if we are not grounded in something other than the capacity and veracity of human analytic capability, we become lost, and some of us lose God.

Surely there are reasons. Elie Wiesel’s Night describes the tortuous journey of a religious Jew who experienced the horror of the Holocaust and his tortuous faith journey as well. Writes Wiesel: “Have we ever considered the consequences of a less visible, less striking abomination, yet the worst of all, for those of who have faith: the death of God in the soul of a child who suddenly faces absolute evil? …Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.” (p. xix)

Wiesel writes, “I was the accuser; God the accused. My eyes had opened and I was alone, terribly alone in a world without God, without man…” A little later, he writes, “And I, who believe that God is love, what answer was there to give my young interlocutor whose dark eyes still held the reflection  of the angelic sadness that had appeared one day on the face of a hanged child? Did I explain to him that what had been a stumbling block had become a cornerstone for mine? All is grace. If the Almighty is the Almighty, the last word for each of us belongs to him.”  (p. xxi)

Well, the last word belonging to and coming from God is what apparently sets so many of us in faith crises. We need for God to answer in a way pleasing to our liking; we need for our God to be a God that sets the crooked places straight and make rough places smooth. God does not do that, and it upsets our capacity to believe.

It occurs to me that we are not taught an honest religion. We are taught to pretend that all is good when all in fact is far from good. InNight,Wiesel describes an angry moment, one of many he had, I am sure, where he asks, “What are You, my God? How do you compare me to this stricken mass gathered to affirm to You their faith, their anger, their defiance? What does Your grandeur mean, Master of the Universe, in the fact of all this cowardice,this decay, and this misery? Why do you go on troubling these poor people’s wounded minds, their ailing bodies?” (p. 66)

Indeed, haven’t many people of many groups uttered such despair and disillusionment with God?  Lie Wiesel, we feel “great voids” opening within us, deep voids which cut to the core of what we have always believed. Our God does not behave; this God allows people to suffer for nothing; this God allows the wicked to prosper and the expense of the poor and downtrodden.

And yet, this God allows some victories to come from the most abject suffering. It was children, young children and young adults, who broke the back of Jim Crow in Birmingham, Alabama. Little children allowed themselves to be bitten by dogs, and beaten down by fire hoses even as government, as in the case of the Holocaust, remained silent, and so did, it seemed to many …so did God remain silent. When the Holocaust was over, the world decided it had been silent too long when it came to discrimination toward Jewish people; when the demonstrations in the South were over, African-Americans were one step closer to being treated as human beings.

The fact, though, that so much suffering precedes the smallest victories, with God apparently allowing it, is mind-boggling and faith-shattering. We do not understand this God, not at all.

Just today I shared with a friend that all I have is faith. There are so many things not right in my life, and yet, at the end of the day, all I have to hold onto is my faith in God, a faith that says to me that God hears and God cares.

Anne Frank said that “despite everything, I still believe that people are good at heart.” I believe that, despite everything, God is present and God cares. It keeps me going.

I understand disillusionment; I understand feeling alone, betrayed, not understood. I hate to see good people suffer. I hate it that God will not and does not do the bidding of people. I understand how and why some pastors would become atheist.

But I also understand that faith has kept me alive emotionally; it is what motivational speakers call “positive thinking.” Call it what you want. I call it faith. I have to.

A candid observation …